The Right To Housing

A Right Denied The Right to Housing in Ireland Seventy Years after the Proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human RightsA statement by JCFJ on international Human Rights Day. 'A Right Denied: The Right to Housing in Ireland Seventy Years after the Proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights'.

1. Introduction

1.1 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Human Rights Day is observed each year on 10 December, in recognition of the date, in 1948, on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.

Human Rights Day 2018 therefore marks the seventieth anniversary of this key milestone in the international community’s acknowledgement that the human rights of all persons in all nations must be respected, protected and promoted.

The Preamble to the Universal Declaration speaks of the ‘inherent dignity’ and ‘the equal and inalienable rights’ of all members of the human family and refers to the aspiration to create a world ‘in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want’ (emphasis added). Accordingly, the Declaration sets down not just civil and political rights but economic, social and cultural rights to which everyone is entitled.

Among these is the right of every person to adequate housing.

1.2 Ireland and the Right to Housing

On the anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration, there is a pressing need to reflect on how the right to housing is being implemented in Ireland, given the deep-seated and prolonged housing crisis which the country is facing and which is impacting so seriously on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Ireland has been an active and committed member of the United Nations since 1955, including in the area of promoting human rights. During the period 2013 to 2015, it was a member of the Human Rights Council. In 1989, it ratified two core human rights treaties developed by the United Nations to elaborate on the principles and provisions of the Universal Declaration – namely, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This latter treaty includes an article on the right to adequate housing. Since then, Ireland has ratified a number of other treaties whose provisions include the right to housing.

Yet as Ireland marks the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration, and approaches the thirtieth anniversary of its ratification of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, serious questions arise regarding Ireland’s commitment in practice to implementing the right to housing for all people living in this country.

These questions arise because of:

• the high incidence of homelessness and the large numbers of households facing serious and prolonged housing difficulties in terms of lack of affordability, insecurity or inadequate standards;

• the failure to make the right to housing the key guiding principle for the development of policies affecting housing; and,

• the failure to ensure that the right to housing is progressively implemented through appropriate rights-based policies.

2. The Non-implementation of the Right to Housing in Ireland

In considering the extent to which the right to housing remains unfilled in Ireland, two overarching principles inherent in the provisions of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights need to be borne in mind:

1. The right to housing belongs to every person without exception;

2. The right to housing is not fulfilled merely by the provision of some minimal form of shelter; rather, it implies ‘a right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity’. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has drawn attention to a number of key aspects of the right to housing, three of which are of particular relevance to Irish housing at this time: security of tenure (which has been described as a ‘cornerstone’ of the right to housing ), affordability, and adequacy in terms of structures and facilities.

The number of households in Ireland whose housing is inadequate, unaffordable or insecure is not known. The available information only provides pointers to the range and scale of housing difficulties being faced by individuals and families.

These difficulties are evident in:

• Officially registered homelessness, which stands at record levels (9,724 persons, including 3,725 children, in October 2018);

• Hidden homelessness, where people are in effect homeless but are not registered as such – for example, those who are involuntarily sharing with family or friends or who are ‘couch-surfing’;

• Social housing waiting lists, where people are waiting longer and longer to be housed (over a quarter are now waiting seven years or more);

• The high rents, lack of security and often sub-standard conditions in the private rental sector, which leaves many tenants in a chronically vulnerable situation;
• Large numbers of people in their twenties and thirties continuing to live with their parents because they cannot afford the rent or a mortgage to enable them to establish a home of their own;

• Lack of appropriate accommodation for many members of the Travelling Community;

• Households with lengthy arrears on the mortgage on their home and tenants of landlords who are in long-term arrears on buy-to-let mortgages, leaving such tenants vulnerable to eviction in the event of repossession of the property;

• Cramped conditions and lack of private living space in Direct Provision Centres, the negative impacts of which are compounded by the length of time many applicants for protection live in these centres;

• People with a disability having to live in congregated settings, or in the care of their parents or siblings, because of a lack of suitable supported housing options.

Over the past few years, the testimony of people directly affected by the housing crisis, the day-to-day experiences of housing organisations, the findings of research, and the reports of media outlets have all highlighted the multiple and severe problems, additional to immediate housing difficulties, which may arise from the lack of appropriate and secure housing – for example, financial hardship, constant stress and worry, health problems, strain on family relationships, inability to participate fully in education and in employment, social isolation and exclusion. It is all too clear how the denial of the right to housing leads to the impairment of the other essential rights.

Of particular concern is the effect of homelessness on children; research studies and anecdotal evidence highlight the potentially damaging consequences of homelessness for children’s emotional wellbeing and its negative impact on their right to education, their right to adequate nutrition, their right to play and to participate in their community.


3. The Failure to Base Irish Housing Policy on the Right to Housing

3.1 Lack of Rights-Based National Housing Plans

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is responsible for monitoring implementation of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, has made clear that it expects each State party to the Covenant to prepare a national housing strategy reflecting the principle that housing is a human right.

Despite this, Ireland has, since 1990, published at least eleven national plans or statements on housing and homelessness which have simply ignored the question of the right to housing.

The most recent of these is the current housing strategy, Rebuilding Ireland: Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness, published in July 2016.

Rebuilding Ireland acknowledges that housing is ‘a basic human requirement’, but it makes no reference whatever to housing as a right. This is a significant omission not just because of Ireland’s obligations under the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but because the Plan was published in a context when there was already considerable public and political debate in Ireland about the right to housing. To say that housing is a ‘human requirement’ is merely to state what is obvious; acknowledging that housing is a human right has fundamental implications for the type of housing policies to be adopted.

3.2 Lack of Constitutional Recognition of the Right to Housing

Over the past two decades, calls for the insertion of a legally enforceable right to housing into the Irish Constitution have come from a range of sources, including academics, housing organisations, social justice groups, the National Homeless and Housing Coalition, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Convention on the Constitution. On two occasions, May 1999 and again May 2002, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recommended that the State incorporate legally enforceable economic and social rights – which obviously would include housing – into the Constitution.
Constitutional recognition of the right to housing would, in the first place, have powerful moral force: it would serve as a clear signal that ‘assuring adequate housing for every person in the State is a central national moral and political objective, the attainment of which is essential if the basic dignity of every individual is to be respected’. It would mean that the development of housing legislation and policies could no longer continue to ignore the fact that housing is a right. In practical terms, it would provide ‘a clear floor of protection in respect of basic, adequate housing for all’, establishing a minimum level of provision ‘for which the legislature, executive and local authorities could be held accountable’.

Despite the repeated calls for a right to housing to be inserted into the Constitution, successive governments have been resistant to making commitments in that direction. However, in May 2016, the political groupings which form the present Government included in their Programme for a Partnership Government a promise to ask the Oireachtas Committee on Housing to examine the recommendation of the Convention on the Constitution regarding Constitutional recognition of economic and social rights.

But in September 2017, during a Dáil debate on a Private Members’ Bill to enable a referendum on inserting a right to housing in the Constitution, the Taoiseach, in opposing the Bill, suggested that the matter should be considered not, as indicated in the Programme for Government, by the Committee on Housing, but by the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. No explanation was advanced as to why the Committee on Housing was no longer considered to be the appropriate body to examine this issue. Since then, there has not been any indication as to when – or if – the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform will be in a position to deal with this task. It is clearly open to question just how serious was the commitment in the Programme for Government to initiate a parliamentary examination of the issue of constitutional recognition of the right to housing in Ireland.

4. Failure to Ensure that Official Housing Policy Progressively Implements the Right to Housing

Despite the obligations arising from Ireland’s ratification in 1989 of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, some fundamental flaws in housing policy from the 1990s onwards have served to inhibit rather than promote the realisation of the right to housing for all. (‘Housing policy’ is here understood as encompassing all government measures affecting housing, both those explicitly concerned with housing and those with knock-on effects on the demand for and supply of housing. )

Two features of the housing system merit particular attention – the financialisation of housing, and the model adopted for meeting social housing need.

4.1 The Financialisation of Housing

Characteristic of Ireland’s economic boom were fiscal and banking policies which increasingly allowed housing to be treated as a speculative asset and wealth generator rather than a social good.

The essence of such policies was the commodification and financialisation of housing in Ireland; their practical effect was that a growing number of households found themselves unable to afford to purchase a home, given the ever-escalating price of housing – or were able to ‘afford’ it only by entering mortgage arrangements that were to prove unsustainable; increasing numbers of people had no option but to live in the private rental sector, despite the insecurity and often inadequate standards in this tenure; the provision of social housing fell far short of need. In effect, as the country became significantly wealthier than it had ever been before, an increasing number of people faced housing difficulties of one kind or another.

A key principle of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was thus sidelined – namely, that each State party take steps, ‘to the maximum of its available resources’, towards ‘achieving progressively the full realization’ of the right to housing (Article 2.1). In Ireland’s case, instead of consistent progress in line with increased resources there was significant regression in the realisation of the right to housing.

The deep and lengthy economic recession which followed the economic collapse in Ireland inevitably posed serious challenges for housing provision. But the reality is that the policy choices made, particularly those to restore the banking sector, including the remit and powers given to NAMA, and the pre-existing and new tax breaks to attract foreign investors, added yet further dimensions to the financialisation of Irish housing. There is no indication that current Government policies are inspired by a concern to halt or reverse the commodification and financialisation which now have such a firm grasp on the Irish housing system.

UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, Leilani Farha, has described the financialisation of housing, which is of course a world-wide phenomenon, as ‘one of the greatest challenges facing the right to housing to date’. This is a challenge which Irish governments have not yet shown themselves willing to address.

4.2 Policies to Meet Social Housing Need

Over the past two decades, social housing policy in Ireland has been characterised by two distinct but closely interrelated features: a low level of provision of new social housing units relative to established requirements, and an increasing use of private sources to respond to social housing need, in particular, through the supplementation of rents in the private rental sector.

This policy approach has had significant negative impacts on the fulfilment of the right to housing for people on lower incomes in Ireland.

Firstly, it has led to a severe shortfall in social housing provision by local authorities and voluntary housing bodies relative to established housing need. In 1996, there were 27,427 households on local authority waiting lists; by 2008, the number had doubled (56,249) and by 2011 it had more than trebled (98,318). In June 2018, the waiting list figure was 71,858 households. This decline is largely attributable to the fact that households which are accommodated in the private rental sector under the HAP (Housing Assistance Payment) are excluded from the social housing list.

Furthermore, applicants for social housing are now waiting for very lengthy periods before being accommodated: in 2018, over 60% of applicant households had been waiting for three years or more and just over a quarter had been waiting for seven years or more. In 2005, less than a quarter of households were waiting more than three years.

Secondly, the flaws in the approach adopted for meeting social housing need constitute a key underlying reason for the marked increase in homelessness over the past four years. The high level of reliance on the private rental sector to meet the housing needs of low-income households leaves them vulnerable to eviction where there is strong demand in the sector. The policy approach is also a reason why people are remaining homeless for prolonged periods: it is extremely difficult to exit from homelessness when, on the one hand, there is a severe shortage of social housing and where, on the other, the demand for private rental housing means those on low incomes and reliant on rent subsidisation are in a very weak position to compete. Successive surveys by the Simon Communities of Ireland have revealed an inexorable decline in the number of rental properties available at asking prices which fall within the rent limits for HAP and Rent Supplement; by August 2018, just 6% of properties were within these limits.

Thirdly, while Rebuilding Ireland claims that HAP offers ‘good quality housing’ in communities of tenants’ choice, the reality is that, as already noted, households may have no choice, given the rent limits of the scheme and the level of demand in the private rental sector.

The Action Plan claims also that ‘HAP continues to offer to many families stable and supported social housing’. In fact, HAP tenancies are no more ‘stable’ than other tenancies in the private rental sector in Ireland. The sector does not offer long-term tenancies and any tenancy is liable to end if the landlord can show that they need to use the property for a family member, intend to sell it, or want it vacated in order to carry out substantial repairs. Thus an essential feature of the right to housing – security – is inherently absent from this aspect of Irish social housing policy. This is compounded by the fact that HAP tenants are not included in waiting lists for social housing, having been deemed to have had their housing needs met.

In addition to the concerns outlined above, it should be noted that the duty of every State party to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to take steps ‘to the maximum of its available resources’, in order to realise the right to housing, includes an obligation to ensure that public resources are allocated in a manner that is both effective and efficient.

Ireland’s policy of further expanding programmes for the subsidisation of rents in the private rented sector, instead of directly providing social housing, is certainly open to question on these grounds. The Budget 2019 allocation for the four schemes whereby the State currently subsidises rents – Rent Supplement, HAP, Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS) and Social Housing Current Expenditure Programme (SHCEP) – was €844,395 million. In other words, the State will spend €2.3 million a day on the four schemes throughout the coming year. In a context of rising rents, the allocation for these programmes will of necessity have to continue to rise in future years. Yet, for all this expenditure, the State acquires not one additional unit of public housing and the housing situation of low income households remains defined by an inherent insecurity.

5. Conclusion and Recommendations

On the seventieth anniversary of the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it is clear that Ireland falls far short of realising one of the rights proclaimed in that Declaration – the right of every person to adequate housing. This failure is evident not just in the reality of record levels of homelessness and widespread housing distress of one kind or another, but in the fact that Ireland has failed to incorporate the right to housing into its national housing plans and to make the realisation of this right the core objective of all policies affecting housing.

As Ireland struggles to address the serious problems in its housing system, treating housing first and foremost as a right and striving to fulfil the obligations arising from ratification of human rights treaties which include the right to housing can, and should, provide the essential guiding light towards a better, fairer, housing system.

It is recommended that:

• The right to housing should be the key guiding principle of all national policies on housing and homelessness.

• The Government should make a commitment to the holding of a referendum to enable the people of Ireland insert a right to housing into their Constitution.

• Comprehensive information should be assembled to gain a fuller picture of the nature and extent of the housing difficulties being experienced by households in Ireland, particularly in terms of affordability of housing, adequacy of housing conditions, and security of housing tenure. One option would be to seek additional information on housing in the five-yearly Census of Population. Another would be to commission a large-scale national survey of a representative sample of households.

• The threat to the realisation of the right to housing which is posed by the commodification and financialisation of housing should be acknowledged and all policies directly or indirectly impacting on housing should be framed to prioritise the right to housing over allowing housing to be treated as a generator of wealth.
• The principle should be adopted that long-term social housing need will be met by housing supplied through local authorities and voluntary housing bodies, rather than relying on the subsidisation of rents in the private rental sector; a target of at least 10,000 additional social housing units each year should be set.

 

Author: Margaret Burns, Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice 

 

 

Notes

 

[1] These are: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (ratified by Ireland in 1985); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified 1992); the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (ratified 2018).

[1] See United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 4: The right to adequate housing (Article 11.1), n. 7.

[1] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Habitat, The Right to Adequate Housing: Fact Sheet No. 21, Geneva: UNHCR, 2014, p. 8.

[1] The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in its General Comments on the Right to Housing, indentified the following requirements for adequacy of housing: legal security of tenure; availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure, affordability; habitability; accessibility; location; cultural adequacy (see: Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 4: The right to adequate housing (Article 11.1), n. 8.

[1] See for example, Geraldine Scanlon and Grainne McKenna, Home Works: A Study on the Educational Needs of Children Experiencing Homelessness and Living in Emergency Accommodation, Dublin: Children’s Rights Alliance, 2018; Kathy Walsh and Brian Harvey, Family Experiences of Pathways into Homelessness: The Families’ Perspective, Dublin: Focus Ireland, 2017; Rory Hearne and Mary P. Murphy, Investing in the Right to a Home: Housing, HAPS and Hubs, Maynooth: Maynooth Univesity Social Sciences Institute, 2017.

[1] See United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 4: The right to adequate housing (Article 11.1), par. 12. See also: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Habitat, The Right to Adequate Housing: Fact Sheet No. 21, Geneva: UNHCR, 2014.

[1] These include: A Plan for Social Housing (1991); Action Plan on Housing (2000); Homelessness – An Integrated Strategy (2000); Housing Policy Framework: Building Sustainable Communities (2005); Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities: Statement on Housing Policy (2007); The Way Home: A Strategy to Address Adult Homelessness in Ireland 2008–2013 (2008); Housing Policy Statement (June 2011); National Housing Strategy for People with a Disability 2011–2016 (2011); Homelessness Policy Statement (2013); Social Housing Strategy 2020: Support, Supply and Reform (2014); Rebuilding Ireland: Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness (2016).

[1] Rebuilding Ireland: Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness, Dublin, July 2016, p. 8; p. 19.

[1] See, for example, Mercy Law Resource Centre, The Right to Housing in Ireland, Dublin, 2016; Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, A Room at the Inn? A Pastoral Letter on Housing and Homelessness, Dublin: Veritas, 2018; The Convention on the Constitution, ‘Constitutional Convention Votes in Favour of Reforming Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the Constitution’, Press Release, 22 February 2014 (https://www.constitution.ie/AttachmentDownload.ashx?mid=adc4c56a-a09c-e311-a7ce-005056a32ee4).

[1] UN Committee on Economic and Social Council Rights, Twentieth session, 4–5 May 1999, Concluding Observations: Ireland, E/C.12/1/Add.35,14 May 1999, n. 22; UN Committee on Economic and Social Council Rights, Twenty-eighth session, 29 April–17 May 2002, Concluding Observations: Ireland, E/C.12/1/Add.77, 5 June 2002, n. 23.

[1] Jerome Connolly, ‘A Constitutional Right to Housing: A Tale of Political Sidestepping, Working Notes, Issue 80, October 2017 (www.workingnotes.ie).

[1] Mercy Law Resource Centre, The Right to Housing in Ireland, Dublin, 2016, p. 19 (www.mercylaw.ie).

[1] Jerome Connolly, ‘A Constitutional Right to Housing: A Tale of Political Sidestepping’, Working Notes, Issue 80, October 2017 (www.workingnotes.ie).

[1] A Programme for a Partnership Government, May 2016, p. 20

(https://www.merrionstreet.ie/MerrionStreet/en/ImageLibrary/Programme_for_Partnership_Government.pdf).

[1] National Economic and Social Council, A Review of Housing Policy, Dublin: National Economic and Social Council, December 1988 (NESC Report No. 87), p. 75.

[1]   UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Statement of the Press Conference by the Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha’, 2 March 2017.

[1] Housing Agency, Summary of Social Housing Assessments 2018: Key Findings, Dublin, Table 2.8, p. 24.

[1] Simon Communities in Ireland, Locked Out of the Market VI: The Gap between Rent Supplement/HAP Limits and Market Rents, Snapshot Study, Dublin, October 2018,

[1] Rebuilding Ireland: Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness, p. 48.

[1] Rebuilding Ireland, p. 50.

[1] Ann Blyberg and Helena Hofbauer, Article 2 & Governments’ Budgets, Handbook developed by Article 2 Project, published 2014 (http://www.internationalbudget.org/ publications/ESCRArticle2/).

[1] Government of Ireland, Budget 2019, Expenditure Report 2019, Part II: Expenditure Allocations 2019–21, Dublin: Stationery Office, 2018, Chapter 13, Housing, Planning and Local Government, p. 114

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